Under-display fingerprint scanners were supposed to be awesome. Just place your finger on the touchscreen like you would anyway, and a built-in sensor unlocks the phone. It was the dream, but in reality they are worse than the alternatives.
A brief history of fingerprint scanners
Fingerprint readers first appeared on smartphones in the 2010s. Apple launched the iPhone 5S with a fingerprint scanner in 2013, and Samsung followed suit with the Galaxy Note 4 a year ago. later.
These early fingerprint readers used capacitive technology. The sensor is covered with tiny electrodes, and the capacitance between the electrodes is how your fingerprint is scanned. It changes depending on the distance between the ridges on your finger.
By the late 2010s, the vast majority of smartphones included fingerprint scanners. However, change was coming. Apple started moving towards facial recognition with Face ID in 2017. Meanwhile, Android maker Vivo was implementing the first in-display fingerprint scanners.
Apple has pretty much ditched fingerprint scanners for Face ID these days – only the “retro” iPhone SE has Touch ID. There are still many Android devices with the original type of fingerprint scanner, but in-display scanners have become common on “flagship” Android phones.
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The promise of in-display fingerprint scanners
The first smartphone with an in-screen fingerprint scanner, also known as an under-screen fingerprint scanner, was the Vivo X20 Pluslaunched in early 2018. It used an optical scanner, which lights up your finger and takes a picture of it with a small camera.
I remember being very intrigued by this new concept. Back then, it was still quite common for fingerprint scanners to be found on the front of phones, positioned on the bottom bezel. An in-screen fingerprint scanner kept it up front, but didn’t take up space on the bezel.
It looked like a very futuristic feature. How cool is it to just put your finger on your phone screen and it automatically scans your finger and unlocks? No need to look for a specific spot on the bezel or back of the phone. Just touch the screen!
Of course, this is not at all how the first integrated scanners worked. You did need to put your finger on a very specific spot, usually indicated by a fingerprint icon on the screen. They were also much slower than the old fingerprint scanner.
It was fine, however. Cutting-edge technology always has its problems, but the potential is exciting. I could imagine a future where you wouldn’t have to put your finger in a very specific spot and wait a second for it to be scanned. A future where you just have to swipe the lock screen to scan your finger.
The future we have instead
Fast forward to today, the year 2022. High-end Android phones are still launching with in-display fingerprint scanners. Samsung has been using the technology since 2018. Google only adopted in-display scanners with the Pixel 6 in 2021.
Technology has improved over the past five years. Built-in optical scanners, which do not have the best security, have slowly been replaced by built-in ultrasonic scanners. They use ultrasonic pulses to map your fingerprint.
The problem is that these improvements have not been significant enough. Using an in-display scanner in 2022 isn’t as big of an upgrade from 2018 as I would have imagined. In fact, I’d say they’re still nowhere near as good as “old fashioned” fingerprint scanners.
For example, the Galaxy S22, Samsung’s latest and greatest flagship smartphone series, features in-display fingerprint scanners. You would think it would be nice now, right? Of course, different people will have different experiences, but that’s borderline unusable for me.
I very regularly have to place my finger on the scanner three or more times before it registers. It got so frustrating that I turned on Samsung’s face recognition feature, which still isn’t as good as Apple’s Face ID. If it weren’t for Android’s “Smart Unlock” feature, this would bother me even more.
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kiss the face
Apple seems to think facial recognition is the future, and after using Face ID, I think I agree. The potential for under-display scanners seemed great, but the real-world implementation left a lot to be desired.
It’s been nearly five years since the first built-in scanner appeared on a smartphone. Why are they still outperformed by old-school scanners on budget Android phones? If Android makers don’t want to use old-fashioned scanners, they should focus on competing with Face ID.
In my experience, Face ID is just as fast and reliable as an old-school fingerprint scanner. It’s certainly not perfect — it’s less precise with a mask, for example — but it’s very good. The great thing about Face ID, however, is that it’s actually secure.
On iPhones, Face ID can be used as a security measure for things like making purchases from the App Store. This is not the case for facial recognition features on Android phones. If you choose to use this method on the lock screen, you will need a secondary security method for purchases and other things.
The dream of a phone with a full touchscreen that could scan your finger was nice, but it didn’t come true. At this point, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. It’s time to move on to something better.
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